Enlightenment, The

In 1784 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant gave a simple answer to the difficult question "What is enlightenment?" He defined this intellectual movement as man's emergence from his self-imposed tutelage. This emancipatory view of the Enlightenment was widely shared, as was his interest in education as shown in his lectures on the subject, Ueber Paedagogik (Lectures on pedagogy). Writers as divergent as JOHN LOCKE, Montesquieu, Voltaire, JEAN-JACQUESROUSSEAU, David Hume, Denis Diderot, and Benjamin Franklin all saw themselves as educators of mankind. Their common goal was greater freedom: freedom from arbitrary power, freedom of speech, freedom of trade, and freedom to realize one's talents. However, enlightenment also had a different meaning to every author. The Enlightenment was more a loosely organized family of progressive thinkers than a phalanx of modernity. Recent studies have shown that each country had its own variety of Enlightenment, and that Christian forms of Enlightenment were much more widespread and influential than the better known deist and the even more exceptional atheist variants. Another new insight is that the Enlightenment focused not only on rationality, but also on emotionality. Many writers stressed the importance of passions and sentiments and were convinced of the necessity of studying them.

Enlightenment Pedagogy

To a large extent, the Enlightenment and pedagogy were synonymous. In his introduction to the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné, des sciences et des métiers, a cornerstone of the movement, published between 1751 and 1772, Diderot wrote that the project was undertaken to make future generations more enlightened, more virtuous, and happier. Diderot and his colleagues saw themselves as pedagogues, and their task was the emancipation of mankind. To educate the people, they believed, one had to start by educating its youth. Beginning with Erasmus, scholars and theologians had published advice books for parents and teachers, but in the eighteenth century pedagogy developed as a science in its own right. Modern pedagogy was an invention of the Enlightenment; as an anonymous author wrote in 1788, "Today we live in an age in which book after book is written or translated about education." This stream of publications sprang from two sources, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education was published in 1693, and is now seen as a starting point of the Enlightenment. Locke introduced a new approach to children. He compared the child with a tabula rasa, a blank slate, in contrast to earlier writers, who regarded children as born with innate ideas and marked by original sin. A child developed by experience, argued the empiricist Locke, and parents should mainly stimulate and steer those experiences. In that way children would channel their passions and learn skills. Locke's treatise originated with a series of letters to a friend during the 1680s, while he was in exile in the Dutch Republic. He was influenced by Dutch child-rearing practices, which were relatively mild and involved little distance between parents and children. He stressed the need for an individual approach to each child. He also gave many pieces of practical advice about food, clothing, exercise, and reading. Not everything he wrote was new (much was obviously taken from an earlier Dutch treatise), but his pedagogical message fitted well into his other philosophical writings. In the article on enfance (childhood) in Diderot's Encyclopedia, the reader is explicitly advised to read Locke's book on education.

While Locke's contribution to pedagogy was influential, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau was no less than explosive. Although his Émile ou de l'éducation was immediately forbidden after its publication in 1762, within a few years the pedagogical ideas he had formulated were discussed all over Europe. Émile is a pedagogical treatise in the form of a utopian novel mixed with many bits of practical advice. Émile made all earlier ideas about education obsolete, Rousseau claimed. Only his predecessor Locke received some friendly words, but he ridiculed Locke's idea that parents should argue in a rational way with their children. The fundamental mistake of earlier writers was, in Rousseau's view, to base their pedagogy on the goal they aimed at, the adult person a child had to become. "Everything is good coming from the Creator, everything

Girl Mourning over Her Dead Bird (1765), Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Typical of eighteenth-century art, Greuze's painting plays off sexual innuendo (the dead bird symbolizes lost virginity) against a new Enlightenment belief in the natural purity of children. (NG 435. , Edinburgh).

degenerates in the hands of men." This is the first sentence of Émile, and it states the basic principle of the book. A child is good because she or he is part of nature, and education and culture can only spoil the natural child, he warned. The exemplary education of the little orphan Émile by his tutor–named Jean-Jacques–took place in the countryside, and nature was his teacher. Books were forbidden–with the exception of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe–because a child had to learn from empirical encounters. Freedom was the highest good in life, and therefore a child should, for instance, learn to walk without leading strings or reins, since "the joy of freedom compensates for many injuries."

Émile was seen by contemporaries as both compelling and chaotic, as a paradoxical mix of reason and incongruity, religion and godlessness, meddlesomeness and love for freedom. Despite all criticism, though, Émile became the foundation and touchstone of Enlightenment pedagogy. Although Rousseau afterwards explicitly stated that his book was not meant as a guide–he preferred to call it an utopian text–some parents tried it out in practice. Some of these experiments are well documented, such as that of Richard Edgeworth, born two years after Émile came out. His father wanted to make of his son "a fair trial of Rousseau's system." The first results were encouraging, because as a boy Dick turned out to be "bold, free, fearless, generous" and "ready and keen to use all his senses." At the age of seven, his father took him to Paris to visit Rousseau, who thought that the boy was intelligent, but also stubborn and conceited. These traits soon got the upper hand, and Dick was removed from school and sent to the navy, where he soon deserted and finally went to America, to the great relief of his father.

Émile led to discussions all over Europe, but even its greatest adherents realized that Rousseau's ideas were unworkable and should be transformed into practical guidelines.

The Philanthropinists

Nowhere was the new science of pedagogy more enthusiastically developed than in Germany. This was no coincidence. The Enlightenment there occurred when the country was emerging from a period of retarded political and intellectual development. The German word paedagogik was introduced in 1771, and the period 1770 to 1830 is now called the paedagogisches Zeitalter, the age of pedagogics. A congenial group of writers, clergymen, and teachers developed a dense network. They were called the philanthropen ("friends of men").

J. B. BASEDOW (1723–1790), J. H. Campe (1746–1818) and C. G. SALZMANN (1744–1811) were the most famous among them. They were all enlightened and progressive, but on essential points they differed with Rousseau. For instance, they developed systems of punishments and rewards on which Rousseau would have frowned. They made a German translation of Émile with elaborate comments and criticisms in footnotes, which overshadowed the original text. In this revised version, Émile is tamed into a well-behaved bourgeois boy. The first footnote is a comment on Rousseau's famous opening sentence, cited above, and it reads: "It could be argued as well that many things degenerate when they are left to Nature only, without being helped by human diligence." The philanthropinist version of Émile was translated into other languages, as were many of the books and journals produced in abundance by German pedagogues.

An important difference with Rousseau was their rejection of the possibility of education outside of society. These pedagogues strove to improve education within the family and at school. They wanted to educate not only the children of the elite, as early enlightened writers such as Locke and Rousseau had, but also children of the lower classes. Basedow was invited by the enlightened prince of Dessau to establish a school according to these new principles. This school, the Philanthropinum, became a model for many other schools. The small garden, in which each pupil had to work, and the little lathe which stood in each pupil's room were distant echoes from Rousseau's Émile.

The new generation of pedagogues concentrated on educating the common people. They observed that schools, both in cities and in the countryside, were old fashioned and that most teachers were incompetent. In the middle of the eighteenth century there still was a broad gap between the cultural elite and the majority of people, who were illiterate. Newly established societies aimed at bringing the message of the Enlightenment to the common people. In the Dutch Republic, for instance, the Society for Public Welfare established schools for the poor and published cheap schoolbooks according to modern principles.

The German philanthropinists and kindred spirits elsewhere in Europe produced new teaching methods on a large scale. Basedow tried to present children with all existing human knowledge in his 1774 Elementarwerk, and this became a model for later authors. They also invented a new literary genre, children's books. Rousseau's idea that children should not read at all was partly a choice based on principle but was also based on the lack of suitable books. That changed rapidly after around 1770. The Dutch novelist and pedagogue Betje Wolff wrote, "This is the century in which we have started to write for children" (quoted in Dekker, p.46). Although in many of these books the ideals of the Enlightenment were presented in a rather crude way, they were a great step forward.

Enlightenment and Revolution

In the age of the democratic revolution, from the American War of Independence to the French Revolution, new ideas about children also took on a political dimension. However, while the rights of men were formulated, no separate rights of children were even discussed (nor were the rights of women). Children nevertheless were very visible in revolutionary ceremonies and festivities, such as the planting of liberty trees. Revolutionary catechisms were published to explain to children the ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. Revolutionaries developed plans for school reform. In the French constitution of 1791, education was made a task of the state, and the writer and politician the Marquis de Condorcet, and later on the politician Michel Lepeletier, were asked to create blueprints for a new system of public schools.

Politics no longer was the domain of old men. Many French revolutionaries who came to power in 1789 were remarkably young. One example of the political youth was Marc-Antoine Jullien Jr., who had just finished an education of the sort inspired by Rousseau. Only sixteen years old, he was a regular visitor at the Jacobin Club in Paris, the meeting place of the radicals. One year later he was sent to England to establish contacts with the opposition there. In 1793, he was made a deputy in the provinces by the radical leader Robespierre and became responsible for the Terror in the northwest of France. Louis-Antoine-Léon de Saint-Just, another young revolutionary and one of the forces behind the French Terror, claimed that his moral authority was based on his youth: "Because I am young I am closer to Nature," he said. Not much later, at twenty-eight, Saint-Just died on the guillotine. Jullien escaped that punishment and after the revolution became a writer in the field of pedagogy. In 1817 he published Esquisse et vue préliminaire d'un ouvrage sur l'education comparée, the first study in comparative pedagogy.

The legal status of children changed in many countries. In France, the voting age was lowered in 1792 from twentyfive to eighteen. In the Netherlands after the Batavian Revolution of 1795, the voting age was set at twenty. Other rights of children were extended at the expense of parental power in many countries. Children gained greater freedom to choose a marriage partner despite parental protest. Children could also no longer be completely disinherited by their parents. During the Restoration in 1814, these rights were to some extent restricted again in many countries. The voting age in France, for instance, became thirty. The discussion about rights and the age of majority was often implicitly about boys, not about girls. However, girls were not completely forgotten, and many pedagogues paid attention to their education, often in separate chapters or books, in the way Rousseau added the education of Sophie to the upbringing of Émile.

The Influence of the Enlightenment

In the end, the Enlightenment had its greatest impact in and through pedagogy and education. The last of the Enlightenment pedagogues was JOHANN FRIEDRICH HERBART, authorof Allgemeine Paedagogik (1806), who held the Kant's chair at the university of Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad) after Kant's death. While most philanthropinists were forgotten in the nineteenth century, the Swiss schoolmaster J. H. PESTALOZZI and his collaborator FRIEDRICH FROEBEL, who, although often regarded as belonging to the Romantic period, were closely connected to their predecessors. Another link between the Enlightenment pedagogues and those of later times is found in the methods invented by the director of the Paris School for Deaf Children, Jean Itard, in his effort to educate the Wild Boy of Aveyron. His work exercised a lasting influence, despite the failure of what may have been the most daring experiment of Enlightenment pedagogy. The world of children today was to a large extent created in the age of Enlightenment, and several elements of today's standard school curriculum, including PHYSICAL EDUCATION, manual training, and school gardens, can be traced to the advice given by Rousseau in his Émile.

See also: Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam; Education, Europe; Theories of Childhood.


Dekker, Rudolf. 1999. Childhood, Memory and Autobiography in Holland from the Golden Age to Romanticism. London: Macmillan.

Douthwaite, Julia V. 2002. The Wild Girl, Natural Man, and the Monster: Dangerous Experiments in the Age of Enlightenment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lempa, Heikki. 1993. Bildung der Triebe Der deutsche Philanthropismus (1768–1788). Turku, Finland: Turun Yliopisto.

Lévy, Marie-Françoise, ed. 1990. L'enfant, la famille et la Révolution française. Paris: Olivier Orban.

Rothschild, Emma. 1998. "Condorcet and Adam Smith on education and instruction." In Philosophers on Education: New Historical Perspectives, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty. London: Routledge.

Todd, Janet, ed. 1996. Female Education in the Age of Enlightenment. London: Pickering.